Small town unites to welcome refugees

image above: Community and faith groups in Cazenovia came together to welcome this young refugee family to the small village with support from InterFaith Works of Central New York’s Center for New Americans. Photo: JB McCampbell/InterFaith Works of CNY

Can a small community make a difference in the global refugee crisis? Leaders in the village of Cazenovia say “yes!”

A coalition of Cazenovians—representing the village’s Common Grounds community center, local institutions like churches, schools, and businesses, the mayor’s office, the library, and the local Boy Scout troop—has come together as “Cazenovia Welcomes Refugees.” And after two years of planning and organizing in partnership with InterFaith Works’ Center for New Americans, the group has officially welcomed a refugee family to the village.

In July of 2018, Cazenovia Welcomes Refugees hosted a workday to repair and clean the manse of First Presbyterian Church, readying the home for its new residents, a refugee family from Iraq. Here, a volunteer repairs an upstairs bedroom window.

Making a new home

The young couple and their three young daughters came to the U.S. from Iraq about a year ago, after the father’s service as an interpreter for the U.S. military put the family’s lives in danger. Now they’ll live in the heart of Cazenovia, in the formerly unused manse (pastor’s house) of First Presbyterian Church.

Volunteers with the church and Cazenovia Welcomes Refugees spent months restoring and preparing the home for its new residents and showed up on moving day to unload boxes and furnishings. Now they’re working their way down the welcome wagon checklist, helping their new neighbors with tasks like school enrollment, finding doctors and dentists, and learning when to put out the recycling.

Connecting the community

“The goal is to bring this community together in caring,” says the Very Rev. Jeanne Hansknecht, rector of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, a member church with Cazenovia Welcomes Refugees. “I hope Cazenovia can be a model for other small communities.”

Rev. Hansknecht says the coalition’s work is strengthening community relationships and increasing local awareness of the need for support services. The new family needs access to transportation, medical care, and employment, challenges which affect not just “New Americans” (a term for refugees and immigrants) but current Cazenovia residents from the elderly to recent college grads.

A matter of faith

For Rev. Hansknecht and other church leaders involved with the project, welcoming refugees and caring for new and longtime neighbors is part of being a faithful Christian. “God relied on humanity to take Jesus in, and that’s a big responsibility,” she says. “But it happened, because the human capacity for love is quite remarkable.”

The porch swing in the family’s new home in Cazenovia will be a great place to relax with new neighbors.

The Rev. Dr. Tom Oak, pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Cazenovia, agrees. “People are being challenged to think more broadly about our faith,” he says. “It’s not just about coming to church. We need to take a hard look at the world around us. What are the needs and what can we do?”

With his church right next door to the new family’s home, Oak has seen his congregation transform as they’ve embraced the mission of Cazenovia Welcomes Refugees and prepared a welcome for their new neighbors. “We’ve seen energy and enthusiasm increase in the congregation overall. We’ve seen new young families coming into the church, new life, new spiritual energy.”

Expanding vision

So what’s next for Cazenovia Welcomes Refugees? “The vision has grown,” says Rev. Oak, from “welcoming one refugee family to creating a more diverse and welcoming community for Cazenovia.” The coalition is now exploring ways to expand support services and create additional affordable housing locally for New Americans and others, so stay tuned.

Is your congregation working to support refugees, immigrants, and other neighbors? Tell us in the comments!

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